September 18, 1978 12:00 PM

Considering Bobs Watson’s happy childhood, he certainly did cry a lot. The kid could burst into tears at the drop of a cue. Watson was a weepy movie legend from his debut in diapers in 1931, and by the time he was 10 he had bawled with the best of them (Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Mickey Rooney) in some 200 films.

Then, unlike most child actors, he managed to make the transition to adult roles. “I had the world by the tail,” recalls Watson, “an apartment in Hollywood, a ’56 T-Bird [which is now for sale], and I was making about $1,000 a week. But I’d come home and I’d hear a voice inside me say, ‘Isn’t there something more?’ ” Something more turned out to be a call to the ministry, and today the 47-year-old Reverend Watson is pastor of the Wesley United Methodist Church in North Las Vegas, Nev.

Bobs’ disparate careers continue to overlap. He still acts occasionally; last year he was cast as a preacher in his friend Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto. Indeed, Watson believes that portraying various types helped prepare him for the ministry. “But there’s a difference,” he warns. “I used to think an actor had to know more about people than anyone else. As a minister, you not only have to understand people but accept them too.”

The youngest of nine acting Watson children, Bobs grew up near the old Mack Sennett studio where his father was a prop man and sometime actor. Every time a child was needed for a part, there seemed to be a young Watson just the right size. All told, says Watson, the siblings made more than 1,000 pictures. Bobs got his unusual name at 6 because he was receiving calls (including one for a bartender role) meant for another actor named Bob Watson.

His ordination happened at a heartbreaking time for the family. Just before he graduated from the seminary in 1968, his father died, and Bobs ended up substituting for the regular minister at the memorial service. “It was the most difficult thing I’ll ever be called to do,” he remembers, “because we were so extremely close. There was laughter and a lot of crying, but it was a good service.”

When Bobs’ 14-year marriage ended two years ago, he faced another stern trial. “I have screwed up in my own life,” admits Watson. He became physically and emotionally ill and took a six-month leave of absence. (Unsalaried, he supported himself doing two guest shots on Lou Grant.) “When a store clerk or an actor gets a divorce, people say, ‘Too bad,’ ” Watson points out. “But when a minister gets one, all hell breaks loose.” His church frowned upon the breakup, made him take an extra year’s leave and then reassigned him to Las Vegas. Though he’s not bitter, Watson was hurt by the lack of sympathy from friends and fellow preachers. “It’s a lonely profession,” he concludes.

Watson worries about being separated from his three sons (who live with their mother) but he looks forward to the challenge of building up his congregation of 200 in sinful Las Vegas. His approach has always been unorthodox. He’s written a Lenten play to be performed by parishioners “to attract people who like dramatics but are afraid of the goody-goody stuff.” And some of his parables from the pulpit are mildly racy. “I’m not a company man when it comes to organized religion,” Watson explains, “but I am when it comes to ‘the Boss’ himself.”

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